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Hours after winning his second NCAA wrestling title in three years, Cornell senior Travis Lee sat in a St. Louis restaurant last Saturday recalling the 2004 defeat that helped propel him to this point. "I didn't analyze what I was doing," he said of his 6--3 loss to eventual national champion Zach Roberson of Iowa State in last year's quarterfinals. "I was just an ordinary wrestler."
Not so on Saturday. On a night on which Oklahoma State won its third consecutive team title and tied an NCAA record with five individual champions, Lee, a quiet, brainy engineering major, relied on his quickness to defeat Shawn Bunch of Edinboro (Pa.) 6--3 in the 133-pound final. Lee finished 37--1 for the season and 143--13 for his career at Cornell, during which the Big Red became a national contender, finishing fourth this year.
Lee, a 5'5" Hawaii native, was not intensely recruited in high school--even by Cornell. During his junior year his mother, Lynette, a Hawaiian Airlines flight attendant, mailed a tape of his matches to coaches on the mainland, but Big Red coach Rob Koll, for one, scanned five minutes of the video and tossed it into a bin with others. "His throws looked like judo throws," Koll recalls. A few months later Koll watched more closely and--looking beyond the raw technique--noticed an indefatigable scrapper. "We brought Travis up early and signed him before it got too cold," Koll says. "I told him snow was just cold sand from heaven."
Lee's college teammates quickly discovered how scrappy he could be. During a workout four years ago, Cornell assistant coach Steve Garland was trying to turn the freshman on his back when Lee swung his right elbow backward, breaking bones above and below Garland's right eye; some of those bones are still held together by titanium plates and screws. "I've always been competitive," says Lee, "and losing in practice is still losing."
After workouts Koll would order his wrestlers onto treadmills and then increase the speed and incline to see how long they could last. One day when the incline reached 15 degrees and the speed 12 mph, Lee toppled facedown on the rolling treadmill but refused to quit, reaching for the rails to try to pull himself back up. "I could smell the skin burn," says Koll, "and I thought he'd be spinning around [forever] like in the George Jetson cartoon."
Lee first showed his toughness as a toddler, by following his two older brothers into judo. "Travis was three, too young for classes," recalls his father, Cliff, who manages a trucking company in Honolulu. "But he wore the outfit around, and we had to tie the belt around him three times for it to fit. We later put him in T-ball, but he was pulling weeds out of the outfield, he was so bored. He wanted action."
Lee won national age-group judo titles. After taking up wrestling, he earned three state high school championships and, in 2001, junior-national titles in freestyle and Greco-Roman. All the while he remained a top student, graduating with a 4.25 GPA from Honolulu's St. Louis High.
At Cornell, Lee studies linear algebra, computer programming, tissue engineering and fluid mechanics. He plans to go to grad school in the fall and keep working out with the Big Red in hopes of making the 2008 Olympic team. He must choose between freestyle wrestling, which better suits his quickness and is similar to the collegiate variety, or the above-the-waist Greco-Roman style, which has fewer competitors. "I guess I have to pick one, but I'd like to do both," he says. "I have to analyze that."